Pandemic politics? In Jordan, it has leveled the playing field.

Why We Wrote This

Few Americans would say the coronavirus has benefited this election season. But in Jordan, pandemic restrictions have played the role of equalizer, opening the door to new candidates, and perhaps more democracy.

Taylor Luck
A passerby glances at election posters dotting the Third Circle roundabout in Amman, Jordan, on Oct. 28, 2020. The pandemic has leveled the playing field for parliamentary elections Nov. 10, allowing many more women to run.

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As Jordanians prepare to vote for Parliament next week, social restrictions imposed by the pandemic are acting as a catalyst, shaking up an electoral culture built on blood ties, vote-buying, and tribal peer pressure.

In the past, wealthy tribal sheikhs and businessmen would erect tents, hosting hundreds of relatives, neighbors, and undecided voters for banquets that offered sweets, coffee, and promises of jobs.

But the pandemic has pushed Jordanian politics and politicking out of the tents and into the world of online human engagement.

“I am Googling candidates’ [backgrounds and qualifications] before the Facebook rally starts,” says Khaled Saud, a community organizer, as he squints at his smartphone. “Times change, and so must we.”

More broadly, the restrictions are an equalizer, allowing candidates with new platforms but fewer resources to enter the fray. A record 364 female candidates are running, up 44% from 2016, as are 30% more candidates under the age of 40.

“Unlike the rest of the world, elections in Jordan were a social event rather than political,” says Jehad al Momani, spokesman for Jordan’s Independent Electoral Commission. “Now with the socializing taken away, candidates are faced with the fact that you have to have a political program, too.”

Lamb feasts, mass gatherings, concerts, and cash. Elections in Jordan were long synonymous with extravagance and socializing: heavy on cholesterol, light on politics.

Yet with the COVID-19 pandemic raging throughout the country, this November’s parliamentary elections are looking very different for Jordanian voters like Khaled Saud who are long accustomed to being wooed in person.

In elections past, wealthy tribal sheikhs and businessmen would erect tents and, in a festival-like atmosphere, host hundreds of relatives, neighbors, and undecided voters for nightly banquets, including sweets, coffee, and promises of jobs – even cash.

But more than ever before, the pandemic has pushed Jordanian politics and politicking out of the tents and into the world of online human engagement.

“I am Googling candidates’ [backgrounds and qualifications] before the Facebook rally starts,” says Mr. Saud, a community organizer, as he squints at his smartphone in Rashidiya, in southern Jordan. “Times change, and so must we.”

The pandemic has posed challenges for campaigning and voting in an established democracy like the United States.

But in Jordan, the social restrictions are acting as a catalyst, shaking up an electoral culture built on blood ties, vote-buying, and tribal peer pressure that put clan above personal choice at the ballot box.

More broadly, the restrictions are becoming a great equalizer, allowing candidates with fewer financial resources and new political platforms, including women and young people, to enter the fray.

It is a fundamental shift that experts say is on a par with scrapping the Electoral College in the U.S.

“Unlike the rest of the world, elections in Jordan were a social event rather than political,” says Jehad al Momani, spokesman for Jordan’s Independent Electoral Commission. “Now with the socializing taken away, candidates are faced with the fact that you have to have a political program, too.”

Politics made affordable

Tribes and businessmen have long dominated Jordan’s Parliament, the kingdom’s lawmaking body, overwhelming purely political groups that have splintered into 48 mostly ineffective parties in a country of 6.5 million citizens.

Outside Amman, large tribes would agree on a candidate, expecting their followers to fall in line; smaller tribes were promised “benefits.” Candidates barely spoke a word. It was more of a coronation than a campaign.

But this year Jordan’s government has imposed strict measures for the elections Nov. 10, banning gatherings of more than 20 people, imposing weekend lockdowns and nighttime curfews, and making tent campaigning all but impossible. A five-day lockdown is set for Nov. 11.

The ban on social gatherings has also made competing in Jordanian elections affordable and, candidates say, accessible. 

The average campaign once cost tens of thousands of dollars; now all that is needed is the $700 registration fee, leveling the playing field for women and youth candidates who would otherwise be unable to compete with deep-pocketed sheikhs and businessmen.

This has led to a record 364 women candidates, up 44% from 2016, and a 30% rise in candidates under the age of 40.

Taylor Luck
Samiha Sarayreh, a former school principal whose candidacy for Parliament is fueled by social media, at her home in Karak, in southern Jordan, Oct. 31, 2020.

Samiha Sarayreh, a former school principal in Karak, in southern Jordan, is one of the dozens of women running for Parliament for the first time.

She uses Facebook, Zoom, and WhatsApp to reach her base of women and former colleagues – showcasing her trademark brutal honesty and commonsense outrage, and addressing issues such as distance learning, unemployment, and corruption.

“Give the women a chance”

“I decided to run this year because I have the chance to reach voters directly, and they can decide who will speak for them, not what their tribe says or who has the most money,” Mrs. Sarayreh says as she meets with three masked voters in her home in Karak. She says she is tapping into growing frustration with male-dominated parliaments and a broader push by King Abdullah to have more women in leadership positions.  

“There is a sense that we have tried men and have gotten the same disappointing results. Why not give the women a chance?” she says.

“The low cost of elections has created an opening for women and young people this year,” says Wafa Yousif Tarawneh, who this year formed Jordan’s first all-women electoral list, Nishmiyat Haya, and is competing against relatives, much to the outrage of her tribe. She has inspired three additional all-women electoral lists across the country.

“In a time of pandemic, people are looking for policies and solutions, and there is a sense that women are more trustworthy and able to provide that,” Ms. Tarawneh says.

While long given a free pass, tribes and businessmen have been put on their heels by the crisis, with citizens demanding solutions to the health crisis, education, and job creation in a country that has seen 23% nationwide unemployment and jobless rates reach 50% outside the capital.

“People are demanding solutions,” says Hussein Mahadin, dean of the school of sociology at the University of Mutah, who served as a moderator for candidate debates. “The tribe’s monopoly on politics and society is being broken, and women and independents are finally breaking through.”

With social pressures defanged by social distancing, citizens have felt freer to register and run in the elections without the green light from their elders.

Taylor Luck
Wafa Yousif Tarawneh, who founded Jordan's first all-women electoral list, stands beside an election poster on a car in Karak, in southern Jordan, Oct. 31, 2020.

In Karak, Jordan’s political heartland, tribes that once strategically fielded one or two candidates suddenly have eight or more members running for Parliament, all running on different platforms but splitting the familial vote.

The main road leading to the city and through outlying villages is plastered with posters of different faces with the same family name, one posted on top of the other as if in competition.

“Tribes are being divided; I have my cousin, my uncle, and brother-in-law running. Which one am I supposed to choose?” says Khaled, an English teacher who long voted the tribal consensus.

“This may be my one chance to make a free individual choice, because it is impossible to satisfy a divided tribe.”

With the field divided, and unable to count on their generosity or peer pressure to secure votes, tribesmen and businessmen are being forced to campaign virtually and compete for undecided voters and persons they have never met.

“Before, a candidate would only address people they knew or were related to, so their speech was limited to the issues facing their relatives and village, if they ever spoke at all,” says Mr. Mahadin, the sociologist.  

“Now candidates are forced to go beyond their tribe; they have to address a larger segment of society. They have to focus on broader, inclusive social issues facing citizens across the country.”

Platforms and issues

It’s easier said than done. Facebook Live and Zoom rallies by uncharismatic candidates used to a “coronation” have struggled, sputtered, and are panned on social media.

Money is still filtering into Jordan’s elections; flush candidates are spending tens of thousands of dollars on Facebook advertising. More creative candidates have tried to get around strict election laws by offering weekend getaways at four-star beachside hotels at rock-bottom prices for voters chafing at weekend lockdowns. 

Yet again, COVID-19 is proving to be the great equalizer.

The virus has ravaged many electoral lists, forcing candidates off the campaign trail and even into the hospital in the election’s final days. One positive test can doom an entire list built on tribal name recognition.

“People are learning the hard way: If you don’t have a political platform and your candidate gets sick, you’re stuck,” says Badi Al Rafiya, campaign manager for the Islamist-leaning Islah coalition, which has had several candidates contract the coronavirus.

“If you focus on issues and not names and personalities, you can still find ways to succeed without face-to-face campaigning. A person can get ill, but the platform continues to resonate.”

These changes are expected to continue long after COVID-19 subsides; multiple women’s coalitions are set to form Jordan’s first all-women political parties, and debates via social media are now the norm.

But political veterans say there will always be room for a little glad-handing in Jordan’s elections.

“Facebook debates and Zoom campaigning may be the future, but as even America shows,” Mr. Rafiya says, “nothing beats a rally.”

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